Fun fact of the day

The little brown bat is one of the most common species of bat in the world. It has a huge range across North America, from the warmth of Georgia to the chill of Alaska. Its young are usually born in May or June, but the yearly roost in my roof (and occasionally my living room – I have yet to find their access point) tends to come to life in July. This could, of course, match with the fact that it takes the young a few weeks to get flying.

One of the greatest things about these little guys is that they can eat upwards of 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour. On that basis alone I am recommending that the state of Maine heavily invest in a bat fertility program. Alternatively, if there is a way we can maim the mosquitoes, causing them to suffer before they die, I would be in greater favor of that course of action.

To kill a mocking…bat

I would say I have at least a cursory interest in every animal I’ve ever read about or seen in a documentary. Life is life. It’s all interesting. (Read Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor Tale.) But for the past 3 years (as of this July), I’ve had a special interest in bats. You see, I deal with an invasion in my ceiling of the little things every summer. I’m not sure if it’s really beautiful or just creepy hearing them scamper about, but I do enjoy laying awake listening to them. At least, I enjoy them until they manage to get inside. At that point it’s a matter of catching them with a blanket before the cats catch them with a set of claws and teeth. It wouldn’t be so bad if 1) I didn’t have to get my indoor cats preventative shots I otherwise wouldn’t have bought and 2) there wasn’t the ongoing white nose syndrome epidemic going on with bats. The disease so far appears to be limited to bats – decimating huge colonies – but since it isn’t very well understood at all yet, I don’t like the idea of exposing my animals to it (or myself).

But even with limited understanding, an interesting question is raised. Can we help to prevent its spread? One line of thinking says we can by destroying infected bats. But others are calling on the power of evolution:

Kentucky wildlife officials acted quickly when a confirmed case of the disease was found in a bat in Trigg County recently. They euthanized 60 “highly suspect” bats that were “not expected to survive,” they said Wednesday…

Local and national experts, however, believe euthanizing infected bats may not prevent the spread of the disease and could be “counterproductive” to the effort.

Dr. Merlin Tuttle, founder of Bat Conservation International, said white nose syndrome has reached epidemic levels, killing more than 1 million bats since 2006. He said in cases, like this one, where a disease has a very high mortality rate, it is important to see if some infected bats are able to fight off the disease. That way, those with immunities to a disease are able to pass on that ability to their offspring, eventually re-populating the species with bats that can withstand the disease.

“If you kill every bat that gets (the disease), it’s pretty hard to see who survives,” said Tuttle, who has studied bats for more than 50 years. “Just because you get sick, it doesn’t mean you die.”

It isn’t an easy call. Bats are dying in record numbers. Something clearly must be done. Evolution may provide the doing – after all, bats have been around for 50-55 million years – but if humans can successfully intervene, then we should. The problem is that we just don’t really know how to go about it.

Thought of the day

The bats are back.

I knew there was a solution

I had a bat problem this past summer. I turned toward using a blanket to capture and release them. As it turns out, there is a much better solution.

More bats

How prophetic.

So, in honor of this story (which I don’t think is over – we have little idea of where these things are originating)…

Another attack last night. I hear them in the ceiling.

Bats

We’ve had an abundance of rain in the past month in my area. As such, we have a lot of standing water. To make matters worse, I live near a lake, which often means there’s standing water nearby anyway (and that’s definitely the case here). This all adds up to mean a deluge of mosquitoes. Fortunately, there are also a lot of bats around here. But it isn’t all gum drops and soda. Sometimes having a lot of something means things will start showing up where you don’t want them to show up.

In the past two days, I’ve encountered three bats in my apartment. The first was dead. I’m not sure if a cat killed it or if it died naturally or if it was white nose syndrome (though there was no visible fungus). The second was among a series of shirts I have layed over a large change bottle. I got that guy downstairs before he decided to take a quick aerial tour of the area. I eventually got him out the door. The third one, which showed up tonight, almost victimized by the hungry mouths of several cats, decided to go for the extended stay with optional aerial tour of the living room. It was fascinating watching it flying back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. After waking some sleeping roommates, we got it sequestered in the sun room/porch. Unfortunately, there’s no light in that small room, so there was a lot of fast ducking and thrown blankets in response to the constant dives and erratic motions of the bat. With time and a little help from an empty Yahtzee box, we got it out one of the windows.

So, in honor of this story (which I don’t think is over – we have little idea of where these things are originating), I am reposting some bits from a Carl Zimmer piece on bats. Be sure to click “Bat in wind tunnel” and “Vampires running!” to watch the videos. For whatever reason, I cannot embed any better than that.

Bats evolved about 50 million years ago from squirrel-like ancestors. They probably made their first forays into the air as gliders. Like living gliders, they used flaps of skin to increase their surface area, letting them glide further. Their hands evolved long spindly fingers that were joined by membranes. Some early bat fossils suggest that they may have shifted from gliding to alternating between gliding and bursts of fluttering. Eventually bats evolved sustained powered flight.

Bats evolved a way to take advantage of the same laws of physics birds use to fly. And many scientists who have studied bat flight in the past have basically treated bats like leathery birds. Yet there’s no reason to assume that this should be so. After all, it would not be surprising to find that the way the feathers on a bird’s wing react to air pushing against them are different from the way the stretchy membranes on a bat react. Birds don’t have wing surfaces connecting their front and back legs, like bats do. And while birds only have a couple joints in their wing skeleton, such as at the elbow and wrists, bats have lots of knuckles they could, in theory, bend selectively to alter their wing surface. Bats also have lots of sensitive hair cells on their wings that appear to track the speed and direction of the air flow, and the information they get from the hairs may help them make fine adjustments to their wings many times a second.

Bat in wind tunnel from Carl Zimmer on Vimeo.

I think the creepiest thing about this whole event, other than the possible rabies, was the way I watched the third bat walk. It landed on the floor a couple times and crawled around a bit. I wish I could have had more light to really observe it.

Vampire running! from Carl Zimmer on Vimeo.